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Hospitality, an important Christian spiritual practice

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Have you ever been so stressed about hosting guests that you hardly enjoyed their company? Hospitality is one of the most important Christian spiritual practices. It’s strongly woven throughout the New Testament. It comes up time and time again.
Being hospitable was a practice influenced by a broader cultural context. In ancient Palestine and the larger region of Jesus’ day, hospitality was a cultural mandate. That’s why the Bible features so many travel stories of Jesus, Peter, and Paul arriving in a new place and being welcomed, often in beautifully generous ways.
In the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42, Martha is so anxious about being hospitable for Jesus’s visit, she “was distracted by many tasks” while her sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet to listen to what he was saying.” Martha expresses her frustration to Jesus:
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
This story takes place in a culture that reveres hospitality. Martha seems overwhelmed by what’s expected of her--expectations she holds herself to because she wants to be faithful and wants Jesus to be welcomed properly.
I hear Jesus’ “Martha, Martha” not as condescending scolding as much as compassionate calming. He hears her anxiety and wants to relieve her of the cultural expectations she’s trapped under.
Jesus invites Martha to imagine a different approach. Martha is doing the “right” thing, cultural speaking. Yet, Jesus invites her to question the cultural norms pressuring her. Her anxious focus on hospitality prevented her from being present to the very people to whom she wants to be hospitable.
Hospitality is not the problem in this story. Martha is not the problem. Mary is not the problem. The problem is when we become so confident in the cultural waters in which we swim. The problem is when we assume there couldn’t possibly be another way.
But Jesus invites us to question the things that no longer give us life. The things that make us anxious. The things that we might need to let go of. The things we might need to challenge.
And he invites us into a life of grace. The kind of grace that lets us leave the dishes in the sink and live in the present moment. The kind of grace that lets us be present to the people around us.
This past Friday at our prayer service for migrant children, we took up an offering for Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. This is a place that takes a gospel-inspired view of hospitality:
“Close to 100 years old, somewhat dilapidated...and some 10 blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border, this two-story, red brick building has been home to thousands of refugees and migrant poor. This building, this house of hospitality, this sanctuary, is known as Annunciation House... We accompany the migrant, refugee, and vulnerable peoples of the border region through hospitality, advocacy, and education.”
When Alicia Ramirez, a local Sister of Loretto, shared with us stories of her service with Annunciation House, she framed all they do in terms of being a house of hospitality. This shows us just how powerful hospitality can be. The volunteers of Annunciation House are living out the practice of hospitality in radical ways. They are radically present to the people who need to know that they are welcomed.
Reverend John Russell Stanger is pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, a caring and inclusive congregation that welcomes you any Sunday.